This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Documentary Defined by Interactivity

Review of chapter 40: Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era," James Lyons. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

by Kiersten Depina

Throughout recent decades, society has been advancing technologically at an accelerating rate. While acquiring many new forms of technology, we find ourselves entering into an era of digital landscapes in which social and political ideas originate.   The new technology that is presented changes the different processes and the nature of political and social interaction.  One way in which humankind has been able to portray political ideas and messages is through the medium of documentary film.  As we continue to digitize politics, new forms of documentary are being released that not only increase interactivity and participation from the audiences, but also question the meaning and understanding of ‘documentary’ itself.  In chapter forty of the text, “The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics,” author James Lyons describes the ways in which documentary adapts to maintain political function as the world digitizes, specifically through digital interactive documentary.

              Lyons begins by discussing the definition of political documentary.  In this introductory section of the article, Lyons demonstrates that the definition of political documentary is very broad, and encompasses a wide variety of different films with different political agendas.  He quotes John Corner, who states that documentary should be “socially useful storytelling” (Lyons, 2016, pg. 492).  In reference to Michael Chanan, he says that documentary has “become more individual and personal” (2016, pg. 492). Drawing upon Debra Zimmerman, she says that if a film causes its audience to perceive an issue differently, than it can be seen as political (2016, pg. 492).

              In addition to the definition of political documentary, he describes the definition of specifically interactive political documentary.  Lyons explains how there is a group of films that sits in between films focused directly on politics and those that include political undertones of everyday life.  He describes how this middle ground is covered a lot in a new wave of digital interactive documentary.  This middle ground includes discussion about control of resources and the exercising of social powers, and more specifically, poverty, racism, the environment, etc.  As a result of the rapidly developing areas of cultural production, many issues related to terminology and classification, are debated.  Lyons quotes both Galloway and Mandy Rose, saying that interactive documentary is “any documentary that uses interactivity as a core part of its delivery mechanism (2016, pg. 493), and that it “opens up to participation...participation in terms of making” (2016, pg. 493).   With the advancements in technology and the increasing digitization of media, many new forms of documentary are being released.  These forms of documentary push the boundaries of traditional forms of cinema, forcing the industry to question what the term “interactive documentary” encompasses.   Lyons points out how Nichols says that the “textual authority shifts towards the social actors recruited” (2016, pg. 493) and their direct contact with the filmmakers.  In contrast, more recent definitions differ from this idea, saying that the ‘social actors’ do not need to have direct encounters with the filmmakers.  Due to the abundance of new digital mediums, interactions are no longer restricted to the filmmakers and their subjects, and interactions no longer have to be direct contact or encounters.  The interactivity of the documentary can also include the actions that the audience or viewers take in response to the documentary.

              Throughout the rest of the article, Lyons references Gaudenzi in order to explain the different types of interactivity that exists under the label of ‘interactive documentary’.  Gaudenzi’s work focuses on the ways in which participants interact with and encounter the documentary.  Lyons describes how Gaudenzi categorizes these interactions into “four dominant understandings of interactivity” (2016, pg. 493) and that each “create a different dynamic with the user, the author, the artifact, and its context” (2016, pg. 493), as well as raise specific issues pertaining to documentary politics.  These four modes include: hypertext, conversational, experiential and participative.

              In the first mode that Lyons discusses, he claims that it is arguably the most prominent, and is titled ‘hypertext’.  This mode is described as a documentary based on a series of selections created from options that are generated by a database.  This type of documentary is often found on the Internet – as it is designed for that specific platform – and is referred to as a webdoc.  Lyons gives an example of a webdoc: Journey To The End Of Coal (2008).  This webdoc addresses the viewer in the first person, and simulates an investigative journalistic environment.  The viewer makes choices from a list of selections, leading from one webpage to another, with each webpage containing text, photos, and short video interviews.  This type of narrative scheme differs from a traditional film, by allowing the viewer to view the documentary under a time scheme that is not restricted.  Lyons once again references Gaudenzi as he notes that this particular structure puts control in the hands of the audience, as they are given the opportunity to visit different sites found within the webdocs database.

              Although the first mode provides the audience with a more investigative approach to the documentary, Lyons describes how this interactive option distracts users from questioning the argument that is presented in the content they are viewing.  He is correct in saying that the choices are a form of distraction, as they lead the viewer to feel as if they are in complete control of the narrative.  In reality, the viewer has no control of the content, but rather a control over their individual view of the static content.  In contrast to Lyons idea, the film immerses the viewer in not only a full screen investigative environment but provides the opportunity to go back and view the documentary multiple times, each time selecting different options.  Although the underlying argument of the documentary stays the same, each time the documentary is viewed, a new narrative is formed based on the selections.  Through the presentation of multiple narratives, the audience is forced to question the argument as a result of questioning their own choices and decisions.  In this instance the audience is not distracted, but forced to construct a deeper understanding.

              The second interactive mode that Lyons discusses is referred to by Gaudenzi as ‘conversational’.  He explains how this mode has a goal of creating 3D interactive worlds that viewers can navigate seamlessly.  Two examples that Lyons provides of conversational interactive documentaries include Unconstitutional (2004) and Project Syria (2014).  In Unconstitutional (2004), the documentary focus was on Guantanamo Bay and the detainees held in the prison camp. Using the website Second-Life, the world takes the viewer’s avatar through the experience of being incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, through 3D simulation and point-and-click option selection.  Lyons quotes digital artist Peggy Weil as she comments on the purpose of the project: “we do not torture your avatar, so rather than a torture chamber, we elected to build a contemplation chamber, a series of spaces to contemplate the practices going on in Guantanamo” (2016, pg. 493).  These spaces include real footage, news stories, photos, audio recordings, poems from detainees, and interrogation transcripts read by actors. 

              Another example that Lyons describes is the documentary Project Syria.  The project uses a 3D system to simulate a rocket shell attack in the streets of Aleppo, Syria, and being transported to a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.  The audio and visuals were rendered using real video and photos, and Lyons discusses how this provides the audience with a personal experience of the event rather than receiving information from a secondary source.

              A question that Lyons poses in response to these documentaries is the political effectiveness of the works.  The main positive aspect of these simulation and virtual reality systems is that it creates new political dialogue that stems more from experience and virtual immersion rather than being based on the experiences and stories of others.  In contrast, Project Syria was shown at the 2014 World Economic Forum, in order to compel leaders to act.  Lyons explains that due to the project’s limited circulation, the producers can only hope that the project receives attention from the right individuals.  Being only accessible by a small portion of people limits its political effectiveness and opportunity to provoke action.  One idea that Lyon does not address however is the opportunity for virtual reality documentaries to be formatted for widespread accessibility.  The first project, Unconstitutional, was released on a website that is accessible to anyone with access to the Internet.  Documentaries like Project Syria that are only available as an installation, might be able to be reworked in the future, to be viewed from home on more modern devices such as the new Sony PlayStation VR.

              Another question that Lyons poses is a documentary’s ability to provoke its audience to act in response to their individual experiences.  He explains how, due to the growth of locative technologies, many different innovative projects have utilized these technologies to document events and issues occurring around the globe in specific settings.  These projects are labeled ‘experiential’ and are the third mode of interactive documentary.  Lyons provides a few examples of this type of documentary.   The first example is Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990).  The documentary was created by students who documented social justice problems in their neighborhood and tagged these narratives to their location using Google Earth.  Handheld GPS devices geo-tagged the stories so that individuals who were in those specific locations could play them back.  A second example is Coffee Deposits: Topologies of Chance (2010).  This documentary was situated in Istanbul, and attempted to chart the lives of everyday people in the city through “in-situ coffee shop encounters” (Lyons, 2016, p. 497).  Lyons describes how this particular project was halted when it was confronted with how Islamic politics impacted certain people in the city – a mobile encounter with a transsexual person revealed a story of harassment and discrimination, relating to the use of laws to take LGBT individuals into police custody. 

              Both of these examples demonstrate what Lyons describes as how “eliciting participant testimony can lead in unexpected geographic and discursive directions” (Lyons 2016, p. 497) and how these documentaries can evolve into works of “foregrounding issues of political and social justice” (2016, p. 497).  Coffee Deposits in particular, resulted in the dialogue of an extremely political happening in the city, and due to the controversy, forced the project to shut down.  Both of these projects give voices to those who would otherwise not have one, and as a result, many different narratives can emerge.  These examples in particular demonstrate Lyons earlier reference to Chanan, when saying that filmmakers are trying to make work that shows the “politics of identity” (2016, pg. 492).  Another example is the Quipu Project (2014 –) that aimed to share stories of indigenous women affected by the sterilization policy in Peru in the late 90s.  This project uses a toll-free telephone number to allow women to record personal testimonies, and then uploads these testimonies to their project website.    The importance of the project is that it gives a voice to those who were previously unable to communicate their experience with the rest of the world.  In the words of co-director Rosemarie Lerner, “for the first time they can actually become part of a wider dialogue” (2016, pg. 497).  Lyons states that the point of this particular documentary is not to recreate the event, but to “make conditions for the story to emerge” (2016, pg. 497), and that the documentary addresses the underlying conditions of isolation and disempowerment. What Lyons does not mention is that not only does this documentary allow for the story to emerge, but it also allows for multiple narratives that can be perceived as both separate and as a whole. The director is no longer the sole voice of the project, and many different people are given the opportunity to become directors of their own narratives.

              Another important point about the Quipu project is that it is through the participation of the women that this documentary exists; and it is through this form of documentary that new forms of collaboration can occur.  This leads into the final category of interactivity that Lyons discusses: the ‘participative’ mode.  Lyons explains that the participants contributing to the creation of a project can be viewed as both the creation of the content and to connect with others who share their experiences.  The example he gives of this particular mode is 18 Days in Egypt (2011 –), which described on their website is an “interactive, crowd-sourced documentary project about the ongoing Egyptian revolution” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498).  The project focuses on the protesters of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, by aggregating their social media content through the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt.  Lyons describes how an interactive platform called GroupStream was launched in 2012 “crowd-source, contextualize, and archive photographs, texts, tweets and video clips” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498).  Lyons argues that this documentary contrasts other forms of documentary as it is “designed to collate and document participatory experiences through an open and evolving database of user-generated content” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498), and that this form of documentary is a response to the original political catalyst using an interactive format.

              Lyons is correct in saying that this form of documentary contrasts other forms of documentary, due to it being open and continuously evolving.  What Lyons does not discuss is that unlike other forms of interactive documentary, the content does not go through a secondary source before being released.  The uploaded content is directly inputted into the database by the creator and is not edited or censored in anyway.  Even if the content is not directly featured on their website, the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt is still sorting the content into the same database and exists for the world to see.  This once again disrupts the definition of documentary, as the project itself can be perceived at its core as simply a hashtag.  In this way, new forms of interactive participatory documentary changes its ‘social actors’ into directors and narrative creators.

              In conclusion, the majority of the article provides a brief glance into the ever-expanding world of interactive documentary.  The article provides an in depth look at each of the four modes of interactivity in a simple and accurate way, and describes the spectrum of interactive documentaries in an unbiased manner.  Lyons arguments are based upon information gathered from those working in the documentary industry, but do not expand on the impact of the projects he describes.  He remains very neutral on the subject of interactive documentary as he mainly explains the different kinds, but where he interjects with personal opinion, he briefly argues his points leaving them to exist more as shallow facts.

              One overarching argument that Lyon presents is that none of the documentaries that he presents in the article allow for the audience the input of information as well as input structural ideas.  This argument can be combatted due to the structure of the 18 Days in Egypt documentary.  All of interactive political documentary arguably relies on the relationship between the audience and filmmaker, as they would not exist without that relationship.  The relationship determines how the documentary is structured, for example, the entire 18 Days in Egypt documentary is created and structured based on the content of what the participants submit. 

              Overall, interactive digital documentary breaks the mold of what a documentary is traditionally understood to be.  Documentary adapts to the changing digital landscapes in society by incorporating different digital platforms and mediums, in order to find new ways of storytelling. This type of documentary focuses predominantly on the relationship between the audience and the creators, and blurs the line between consumer and producer.

Lyons, J. (2016). Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 491-499). Routledge.

Unmet Expectations

Chapter 36: "Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States," Betsy A. McLane. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy

by Alexander Cybulsky

Betsy A. McLane (2016), author of “A New History of Documentary Film”, introduces her article on twenty-first century, American political documentary film as “a cumulative examination of specific trends in cultural norms, problems, political affairs, and experiences” (p. 447). However, rather than providing the reader with an examination of the genre, as promised, McLane (2016) offers more of a summary of specific filmmakers and their works, which she, admittedly through her own personal judgement, deems to have had “significant influences on American democratic processes” (p. 447). Although informative, the article unfortunately fails in analyzing the common themes and connections in political documentary films of this period. By the end of the chapter, the reader’s understanding of twenty-first century political documentary in the United States as a genre or subset of film is not any greater than before having read this work.  The chapter’s introduction identifies some common attributes of twenty-first century documentaries such as “a cynicism and a sense of apocalypse” and the fact that solutions to the problems presented in these films “often seem unreachable and the optimism for creating a better world that characterized earlier documentaries has dimmed” (McLane, 2016, p. 448). However, the socio-economic, political, or historic factors that are responsible for such shifts in the nation’s “mood” are never addressed despite McLane (2016) stating in her introduction that “this chapter considers the ways in which technologies, economic factors and artistic choices reveal how … documentarians see their country…” (p. 448). Due to the lack of a clear intended audience, the absence of original idea and critical analysis, and the failure to identify and explain overarching themes, the chapter is not a successful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.

McLane begins the article in a logical manner by establishing criteria as to what constitutes a political documentary and which films she will focus on in her work. However, the body of the work does not follow suit with the same concise organization. McLane introduces significant filmmakers and proceeds to summarize film after film, by providing a brief rundown of film style, and focusing on net proceeds and marketing methods and challenges. In her summary, McLane touches upon concepts such as “documentary ethics” without providing any form of explanation on the topic, which suggests the article may be intended for a reader with an extensive knowledge on the subject of documentary film. However, one could also argue that such a reader would already be familiar with the films McLane discusses and would find the rushed and repetitive summaries uninteresting. Furthermore, a person well versed in the subject may be less inclined to read the article as it does not assume a position or present any new information on the topic of twenty-first century political documentaries. The lack of original idea in the work becomes especially clear through an examination of McLane’s sources. Much of the cited works are articles from newspapers and magazine such as the Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Variety, and The New York Times. Rather than presenting her readers with original thoughts and supporting them with facts from primary sources, McLane provides a summary backed up by opinion pieces. To a reader less familiar with political documentary, the chapter does not prove any more useful as it fails to explain or elaborate on important concepts and does not identify any thematic commonalities. The recurring summaries and lack of original idea and supporting factual evidence fail to captivate a novice reader. Without having seen a filmmaker’s work, statements such as “technically and artistically well crafted, these films look and sound good on the big screen” do not carry much weight (McLane, 2016, p.450). McLane’s oversight of writing without an intended audience in mind, makes the chapter less successful as neither a novice nor an expert would find the work particularly stimulating or thoroughly interesting.

In her topic summaries of various films, McLane (2016) makes statements such as “the … administration covered up the truth of what had happened” and “…deals with government secrets and the way that information is disseminated and distorted…” (p. 450 & 451). However, the author essentially fails to identify government secrets as an overarching theme in twenty-first century, political documentary in the United States. McLane (2016) also comments on individuals who were “…intent on breaking walls of secrecy around what they perceived as unjust …”, but falls through on introducing the reader to the concept of a whistleblower – an individual who reports insider knowledge of illegal or unethical activities occurring in an organization; an important term in the context of twenty-first century politics (p. 451). Here especially, the author misses the opportunity to elaborate on how twenty-first century technologies and socioeconomic factors influence the relationship between the United States government and its citizens. Modern technologies give the individual a voice, and stories, which could not have been told and shared in previous centuries can now be shared with thousands of people instantaneously. The digital age facilitates journalism to act as the fourth branch of government more than ever before, holding public officials accountable and informing citizens of prominent issues; a notion coined as the Fourth Estate by Edmund Burke, a British parliament member in the seventeen hundreds (Crichton, Christel, Shidham, Valderrama, & Karmel). It seems that instances of governmental institutions depriving the country’s citizens of their basic human right to the freedom of information are the stories twenty-first century political documentary filmmakers are keen on telling (Norris, 2008). As McLane has mentioned, the early twenty-first century has been considered the “Golden Age” of political and social-feature length documentaries, but the author never explains how modern journalism and technology are the causes to this phenomenon. Rather than providing summary, McLane’s knowledge on the topic would have been particularly useful here in explaining why documentary filmmakers have collectively undertook bringing awareness to these issues through their works.

Another aspect of contemporary American political documentaries that McLane (2016) points out but does not follow up on is the fact that a majority are made from a left-leaning perspective and that “…politically conservative documentaries have not tended to attract significant attention or feature in major film festivals” (p.454). Rather than providing an explanation for this important characteristic of twenty-firm century political documentary, McLane (2016) goes on to introduce “one conservative film that did get a large amount of attention…” (p. 454). Although relevant, the reader is not any more informed on the topic and left wondering what is the reasoning behind the facts presented. Jim Hubbard, a film and festival director, has speculated that there seems to be “a huge disconnect between conservatives and film” and “conservatives tend to shun the arts (Anderson, 2006). Filmmaker Michael Wilson holds that “film, to a large degree, has long been considered in the realm of liberal thought” and “the conservative movement has been about talk radio, maybe books” (Anderson, 2006). Whether these explanations are entirely accurate or not, the presentation of facts without any kind of support or explanation results in confusion and frustration for the reader who wishes to understand the topic put forward. It seems that McLane’s focus is on introducing works that she herself finds interesting or significant and is less concerned with informing the reader on the topic or presenting new knowledge.

In a sense, McLane (2016) sets up the reader for disappointment by promising one thing in the introduction and delivering another in the body of the work. The chapter does not read as a “cumulative examination of specific trends” (p. 447).  In fact, “technology”, a topic promised to be “considered” in the introduction, does not get mentioned again until the chapter’s conclusion. McLane’s conclusion does not serve as a conclusion at all, but rather presents new information that seems out of place. McLane begins the subsection by providing a brief historic summary of the last 120 years of documentary making – information that would have likely proved to be more useful near the beginning. The conclusion then goes on to discuss the popularity of documentary in contrast to other types of film. However, the ineffectiveness of the conclusion is not surprising as no original or structured thoughts were presented for the author to conclude. The majority of McLane’s chapter was a summary of information without much critical connection. The reader becomes aware of specific filmmakers and important works. Unfortunately, this awareness does not translate into useful knowledge on the topic of contemporary American political documentary. McLane’s failure to consider who the intended audience for her work should be, to provide original thought and critical analysis, and to establish and analyze common themes and connections in the genre make her chapter an unsuccessful overview of twenty-first century, political documentaries in the United States.


Anderson, J. (2006, July 15). An Uprising on the Right in a World That Leans Left. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from

Crichton, D., Christel, B., Shidham, A., Valderrama, A., & Karmel, J. (n.d.). Journalism in The Digital Age. Retrieved March 12, 2017, from

McLane, B. A. (2016). Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in The United States. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 447-457). New York, New York: Routledge.

Norris, P. (2008). Driving democracy: do power-sharing institutions work? Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

Dismantling the Early Films of Robert Altman

Chapter 28: "Dismantling the System From Within: The early films of Robert Altman and the politics of anti-establishment," Jacqui Miller. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy

by Brennan Asbridge

New Hollywood ushered in a new era of filmmaking. With the demise of the big studio system, a new countercultural movement was born, bringing more freedom to filmmaking, and giving more power to directors than ever before. With this new era of filmmaking came a new generation of filmmakers, including names who are still big today like Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese. Among the many faces to come out of the New Hollywood movement was writer and director Robert Altman. Altman rose to prominence with his subversive hit M*A*S*H (1970), a satirical black comedy war film set in the Korean war. Altman was a director who rejected convention, many of his films were of satirical and political nature, and he is remembered for his subversion of genre, natural dialogue through use of improvisation, his use of the zoom lens, and for pioneering overlapping sound. Altman is largely remembered for his work from M*A*S*H onwards, with his voyeuristic aesthetic, exploration of human isolation, and explicit and subtle engagement with politics, but it is obvious that his signature style was present in his earlier films. In this chapter, Jacqui Miller focuses on Altman’s early work The Delinquents (1957), The James Dean Story (1957), Countdown (1968) and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), and how it lays the groundwork for him as an anti-establishment director, and set him up for the rest of his career in New Hollywood and beyond. It is safe to say that Altman’s signature style became apparent well before his mainstream success with M*A*S*H.

            The chapter begins by setting up Altman as an anti-establishment director, working within mainstream Hollywood. It is established that for a film to count as political, it must either deal directly with a political subject whilst also subverting traditional depictions of reality, present subject matter which is not expressly political but becomes so by the spectator’s understanding past its surface meaning, or, if it’s a Hollywood product, it dismantles the system from within by apparently endorsing mainstream ideology whilst being ambiguous and presenting a noticeable gap between the starting point and finished product. (Miller pg. 354) Altman has films that hit all of these criteria. Miller says that while these are obvious in his later works like Nashville (1975), but that his distinct style is present in his earlier and much less talked about works.

            Miller starts by talking about Altman’s early works, and states that threads of his anti-establishment take are present from the get go. The Delinquents was Altman’s answer to the teenage exploitation films of the 1950s. It tackled the theme, touched on by big budget pictures like Rebel Without a Cause (Ray 1955), of juvenile delinquency, which shifted nicely into his next film: The James Dean Story. This was his first picture to make use of the newly invented zoom lens, which would become a feature of his voyeuristic style. “James Dean explores the cult of celebrity and its dangers, both to the idol and their followers, that would run through many Altman films, most notable Nashville. It also anticipates popular culture’s prolonged fascination with James Dean…” (Miller pg. 356).  It also explores the medias role in constructing and transmitting meaning into peoples everyday lives, as the antithesis to peoples individualized existence.

            Miller than moves on to the 1968 film Countdown. Altman’s first major studio picture, Countdown can be seen as highly political as it features the space race in the middle of real time cold war paranoia. Miller surmises that it may be left out when talking about Altman’s films because it does not match his later style musically, or visually, however it is worth looking at its influence on his later style in terms of technical style and political commentary. This film also marks his beginning as a so called “actors director”, building relationships with actors and allowing them to improvise, as evidenced by Michael Murphy’s testimony. Countdown is also the first movie in which Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue can be found. “This challenges convention in that the audience is given no clue as to which conversation has pre-eminence, disturbing hierarchies of authority; it also sets up the recurring theme of oppositions- America v. Russia, PR and politics v. the space programme as scientific endeavour, conformity v. individuality- in this case between the astronauts who want to continue and ground control which wants to abort the test”(Miller pg. 358). Altman was actually fired by studio head Jack Warner, after principal photography but before editing, because he took exception to the technique. The movie also deals with conformity, the good of the space programme over the good of the individuals. The film deals also with the futility of the whole space race, in the middle of the cold war, questioning the point of it all, whether it is all for PR or science. After being removed from the film, Altman’s original ending, which was more ambiguous, and honoured the dead Russians who had gotten there first, was swapped out for a more pro-America and less ambiguous ending. The last thing that Miller talks about in regards to Countdown that makes it stand out is Altman’s focus on the astronauts wives, showing them always as supportive, but with drink in hand and clearly stressed about the space endeavour.

            Miller continues to Altman’s next film, That Cold Day in the Park, which continues the exploration of the woman’s point of view from Countdown, but with Frances Austen as the focus. Miller believes that this film contains many of the characteristics of New Hollywood, and does not know why M*A*S*H is considered his first real New Hollywood film. That Cold Day focuses on Frances Austen’s obsession with the boy from the park, whom she invites home and keeps locked in her apartment. The film deals with class and money, and instead of subverting the whole genre of physiological thriller on its head, is instead turning the tables on the normal gender roles that usually occur in these films.  That Cold Day carefully curates Altman’s voyeuristic aesthetic with the use of the zoom lens, and continues the theme of the solitude of the human condition, both of which are found in much of his work. The whole film is also unusual in its exploration of the female point of view, whereas most films of the era focused on male angst and presented women as emotional satellites. Miller finishes off her point on That Cold Day: “Although not directly exploring a topic as explicitly political as the space race, it is immersed in a countercultural milieu of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarianism that is only hinted at in Countdown, and is all the more impactful because its central protagonist transitions from a highly repressed to a transgressive young woman” (Miller pg. 362).

            The chapter ends by concluding that all of Robert Altman’s anti-establishment tendencies were well in place before M*A*S*H, and the they should be included in the study of his work.  

            Miller’s chapter was an interesting read, and I found myself agreeing with most of her points, but not with her thesis overall. I think that off the top the title of the chapter is slightly misleading, I thought she would be focusing more on the anti-establishment threads in Altman’s early work and how that was dismantling the system from within rather than why his early works should be considered along with the rest of his body of work as anti-establishment. I agree that That Cold Day in the Park should be included in discussions about Altman’s body of New Hollywood work. It embodies his style, it includes his preference for character study over plot, it has subtle political threads running through it, it encapsulates his voyeuristic aesthetic, and it includes his signature zoom lens. However I can understand why it might be looked over, as a small film for a Canadian studio it was not a big picture seen by a lot of people, which may justify exclusion before studying his works with mainstream success. I also disagreed with her point about it subverting the male gaze, which I think is irrelevant, while the point of view and the voyeurism in this film is clearly Frances Austen watching the boy, the camera remains from the main point of view, and still lingers on the nakedness of  his sister, not the boy. With Countdown, I am in less agreement that it need be studied as part of his New Hollywood works. I think you can definitely see the beginnings of his style, but overall I think Countdown was underwhelming. You can see the his voyeuristic aesthetic in the shots with the wives standing in doorways watching their husbands, and especially in the shots of Chiz watching Lee in the simulator. It also clearly includes the theme of human isolation, not only in sending Lee into space alone, but in the isolation that the wives feel living on the base. Where Countdown fails for me is that it does not quite deliver on either characters or plot. Altman much preferred a study of characters over plot in a film, but Countdown does not successfully dive into the astronauts as characters, they come across as very surface level, which would not have been a problem had the plot been enticing, like in a movie like All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula 1976) where we never learn a lot about the reporters, but the story is enticing. However perhaps it would have been different had he not been removed from the project before editing, which is also why I think this can’t be properly included in his body of work because he did not have control over the final product. When it comes to The Delinquents and The James Dean Story I think it is clear that they are not included as they were made about a decade before the New Hollywood era began. Overall I agree that Altman’s early works are worth studying as they clearly show the beginning’s of his style, but I do not think they should be included as part of his New Hollywood canon.

            This chapter focused on the early works of Robert Altman and why they should be included in the study of his New Hollywood work. Miller talks about the voyeuristic aesthetic, the theme of human solitude, and the anti-establishment spirit that runs through all of Altman’s work, including his early films, therefore they should be included in the study of his New Hollywood work. Miller proves her point that these films are valid to be studied as they do show the beginnings of Altman’s style, but I do agree that they all deserve to be included in his New Hollywood body of work.


Miller, J. (2016). Dismantling the System From Within: The early films of Robert Altman and the politics of anti-establishment. In The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Politics (pp. 354-363). New York, NY: Routledge.